Now that Donald Trump appears to have secured the Republican nomination for President, pundits and pollsters are asking whether “evangelical voters” will gravitate to the polls for him. The evidence is mixed.
While polling back in January by the magazine Politico found such voters warming to The Donald, but when it comes to actually pulling the lever, “evangelicals” appear to be having second thoughts. But when it comes to the issue of whether evangelicals can, or should, support Trump, perhaps that turns out to be the wrong kind of question.
Conventional wisdom had told us for years that “nature abhors a vacuum.” Biblical wisdom has long had a slightly different take: “Demons love a vacuum.” That’s my reading of Jesus’ teaching that a demon that has been exorcised from a house searches for a place and eventually returns to find the house swept clean and empty. That demon then brings seven worse demons along to live there (Matthew 12:43-45). Setting aside the mythological language for a moment, the point of both the conventional wisdom and the biblical wisdom is that empty spaces will be filled – with something.
The term “evangelical” is a case in point. The etymology of the term itself (Greek=euvangelion) points to “good news.” But, that original meaning has long been swept clean from the term’s use.
In Europe “evangelical” was used often in the early 20th century to mean something like “Protestant,” as opposed to Roman Catholic. In German-speaking countries that is still the case. In my experience in Latin America it is still used this way, yet often with a tone of defiance from the self-proclaimed “evangelical”, or a tone of resistance from the Roman Catholic.
In the United States, however, “evangelical” has been employed to mean so many things that it has come to mean nothing in particular. It has meant “Biblical” for some branches of Christianity, but how it is “Biblical” varies greatly from fundamentalist and non-fundamentalist evangelicals. It might mean “evangelistic” in some settings, but not in all.
It seems more consistently to be a way for some branches of Christianity, “evangelical Christians,” to distinguish themselves from some of the older “mainline” denominational Christians. But when some Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Lutherans and others ascribe to the term “evangelical,” that distinction is lost.
The largest branch of Lutheranism in the US, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, for example, raises the question whether “evangelical” means anything like “theologically conservative,” or “biblical literalists,” or any of the other kinds of descriptions that many people assume “evangelical” means. Hence my argument that the term itself has been denuded of its original meaning and has come to host so many conflicted meanings that it has become essentially pointless.
And now “evangelical” is supposed to be a political term. The “evangelical vote” often assumes a united bloc of voters, essentially pro-life, pro-gun, pro-America first, and pro-Christian America. Or, to say it as others might experience it: “anti-choice,” “anti-gun control,” “xenophobic,” and “intolerant.” How that particular agenda squares with the actual good news of the gospel is something that can only make sense in a context that has bought into the privatization of faith as a means of “personal salvation” and an interpretation of the Scriptures where eternal hell and holy war are literal realities, but feeding the hungry or loving one’s enemies are metaphorical suggestions.
Take, for example, the recent story of a tow-truck driver, who drove away and refused to help a stranded motorist because he saw a Bernie Sanders bumper sticker on her car. It was a perfect display of the kind of “Us v. Them” mentality that Donald Trump has been cultivating in order to pander to the evangelical voters at his political rallies. If we compare that act to the heroic “Good Samaritan” of Jesus’ story – an example of how one is to answer, “Who is the neighbor that I am to love?” – this kind of “evangelical voter” action proves to be distinctively unbiblical and anti-Christian.
Or, think of Mr. Trump’s encouragement of his rally attendees to respond to protesters with violence; his way of describing Mexican immigrants as rapists and murderers, his proposed ban on any and all Muslims in the US, and his affection for taking the violence of war to a whole new level. It is only a very peculiar kind of mentality that could claim to be an enthusiastic supporter of such policies and a strict adherent to “traditional Biblical values,” as many “evangelical voters” claim to be.
As a result, the adjective “evangelical” is essentially bankrupt of its original meaning and has been co-opted as a way of baptizing selfishness and hatred. While the ELCA strive mightily to infuse the adjective with a more grace-filled meaning, and while prominent evangelicals like Ron Sider, Tony Campolo, Jim Wallis, and Shane Claiborne embrace values that are squarely opposed to what Mr. Trump advocates – this curious self-described bloc of “evangelical voters” seem to have won the rhetorical battle.
The “evangelical vote” certainly has no intention to bring “good news for the poor, the prisoner, the captive, or the oppressed” (Luke 4:18-20). For them, the poor deserve poverty, the prisoner deserves the death penalty, the captive deserve waterboarding, and the oppressed deserve a huge wall. Those whom Jesus named as the focal point of his ministry have been transformed into the scapegoats for all that is wrong or uncertain in the evangelical voters’ world.
In truth, this is not the “evangelical voter” bloc. Even if much of their rage stems from real frustration, real uncertainty, and a real feeling of disempowerment, the “good news” of the gospel is supposed to be grounded in crucifixion, not in the imitation of Roman coercion. A more accurate term would be the “kakangelical voter,” whose pursuit bodes only “bad news” for those to whom Christ felt particularly called.
D. Mark Davis is pastor and head of staff for St. Mark Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, California. Ordained in 1996, he holds a PhD. in theology, ethics and culture from the University of Iowa and a D.Min. from Union Presbyterian Seminary in Virginia. He is the author of two books: Talking About Evangelism (May 2006) and Left Behind and Loving It (Fall 2011), and he blogs intensive Bible studies regularly at http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com. He is also a monthly contributor to “The Politics of Scripture” section of Political Theology Today.